Still In The Line Of Fire

President Clinton was discussing the budget with aides in the White House residence late one night when a gun went off outside, about 20 yards from the East Wing. Breaking into the meeting, a Secret Service agent rushed to the window and dosed the drapes. There's been a security breach, the agent reported, and "someone's down." Staffers in the room were alarmed. Congressional lobbyist Pat Griffin looked as if he wanted "to lunge under the couch," said one aide. But Clinton was oddly blase. He asked if everyone was OK, then returned to the budget. "Let's keep moving," he said.

Has Clinton gotten that accustomed to bullets whizzing around the White House? Given recent history, perhaps he has. Last week's gunfire came when the Secret Service wounded Leland Modjeski, who scaled the fence with what turned out to be an unloaded revolver--the latest in a series of attacks (chart). Just days earlier, at Clinton's direction, police had closed the two blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House to traffic, partly out of fear of an Oklahoma City-style car bomb. Although there are plans for a new tourist-friendly presidential plaza, the symbolism of the barricade was clear--and disturbing.

Clinton is an unusually polarizing figure, and the possibility that assailants could use powerful weaponry like an AK-47 or a ear bomb makes the white House seem far more vulnerable than in the past. And there is a danger that publicity surrounding the last few incidents will encourage copycats. Last Friday another man, this one unarmed, sealed the fence.

But the number of threats made against Clinton aren't much out of line with what recent presidents have endured. William Coleman, a former Ford cabinet member who served on a commission studying White House safety, reviewed confidential security files and told NEWSWEEK that the pattern has been virtually identical for each administration. In most years, the president receives 8,000 to 4,000 threats, although few are considered serious, says Ronald Kessler, author of "Inside the White House."

As the chief emblem of federal authority, the White House is a natural magnet for crazies. In the 1840s, a drunken painter threw rocks at John Tyler as the president strolled across the South Lawn. In 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists fought a gun battle with White House police while Harry Truman napped. On Christmas Day 1974, a man drove his Chevy Impala through the northwest gate and got as far as the North Portico. He claimed to be the Messiah. That same year, an army private stole a helicopter from Fort Meade and hovered near the White House until he was shot down on the South Lawn. Around the same time, a 77-year-old woman crashed her car into a White House gate one evening at 6 p.m. and was shipped off to a mental hospital--only to be released in time to ram the wall again at 11 p.m. In 1976, a cabdriver bearing a three-foot-long metal pipe scaled the fence and was shot dead when he refused to stop.

But there's no doubt Oklahoma City permanently changed things, precipitating the closing of those critical blocks of Pennsylvania Avenue. While inconvenient for Washington motorists, the move does make the White House safer from most terrorist-style assaults. It's striking that of the four presidential assassinations in U.S. history, none has happened at the White House. Clinton's decision may help keep that record intact.